LAS VEGAS — The Broncos no longer have any margin for error.
For a shot at the postseason, Denver must win its final three games and receive a bit of help. The search for a strong closing stretch starts on Sunday against the Raiders, who are also fighting for their playoff lives at 7-7.
The Broncos will have to snap a recent tough stretch against the Raiders, as they've lost four of their last five games against the division opponent.
Denver's playoff hopes likely rest on the shoulders of Drew Lock — who is poised to make his first start of the season — and the Broncos' talented defense. Both must be at their best for the Broncos to earn their first road win against an AFC West opponent since 2019.
With a win, the Broncos will boost their playoff odds to double digits and set up a high-stakes showdown with the Chargers in Week 17. A loss, though, would essentially guarantee the Broncos will post their sixth consecutive season without a playoff berth.
These are the questions that will determine if the Broncos can remain in the hunt:
CAN THE DEFENSE STOP THE RAIDERS' DEEP PASSING ATTACK?
For as good as the Broncos' defense has been this season, its Week 6 matchup with the Raiders was one of its tougher moments. In that matchup, which became the third consecutive meeting in which the Raiders scored at least 30 points against the Broncos, the Raiders capitalized on deep passes.
The Raiders had five passing plays of at least 30 yards, including a long touchdown pass to Henry Ruggs III. In the games since, however, the Broncos' secondary has found a way to limit those big plays. Absent a deep pass from the Eagles, the Broncos have largely shut down deep passing plays. The Bengals struck on one last weekend, but that was a catch-and-run that resulted from a strong play design.
"We definitely have to limit them," Head Coach Fangio said of the last meeting. "They got three [explosive plays] for sure that come to mind immediately that were huge in the game. Anybody's defense — but especially ours — we can't give up the explosives."
The Raiders haven't been quite as dangerous since Ruggs' arrest and tight end Darren Waller's injury that has kept him out since Thanksgiving. In their last seven games — which represents the time they've played without Ruggs — the Raiders have scored more than 17 points just once. Denver will still have to grapple with Hunter Renfrow, but the Broncos' defense has allowed just 15 points per game over the last four weeks.
If Denver can limit Derek Carr — who has just two picks against Denver in the teams' last 11 meetings — and the Raiders offense from hitting on big plays, they should find success in Las Vegas.
CAN DREW LOCK PUSH THE BALL WHILE AVOIDING MISTAKES?
When Lock entered the game last week against the Bengals, the Broncos found some success pushing the ball down the field. Lock had three completions of at least 24 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown pass to Tim Patrick on his first possession in the game.
During training camp and the preseason, Lock showed his dynamic play-making ability that made him such an alluring prospect. That was also on display late last year, as he finished the season with a run of seven touchdowns to just two interceptions and hit on a deep pass to Jerry Jeudy in the 2020 season finale.
With a host of weapons available, Lock should be able to spread the ball around against the Raiders. Lock's most important objective, though, must be to take care of the football. In limited snaps this year, he has a pair of interceptions and has fumbled twice. The Broncos have lost just one of those fumbles, but it was critical in the Broncos' 15-10 loss to the Bengals.
Fangio said Lock knows that he must cut down on the turnovers, and Lock has acknowledged the same several times this season. When he's able to minimize those turnovers, Lock is capable of blowing a game open. His games against the Panthers and Texans stand out, as does his performance in a fourth-quarter comeback against the Chargers.
With a full week of reps for the first time in the regular season, Lock should be better positioned to find that success.
"I think guys are excited to see how Drew will do with a week's worth of practice," Fangio said. "Everybody remembers that he had a good camp and played well in the preseason. That's what's we're looking to see."
WILL THE BRONCOS' PRO BOWL SNUBS SHOW OUT?
The Broncos may be in the thick of the wild-card race, but their performance this season didn't garner much national recognition. Denver was the only team in the playoff hunt that didn't have a single player chosen to the Pro Bowl, and there were a couple of significant snubs.
Safety Justin Simmons has already tied a career high with five interceptions, while rookie Pat Surtain II entered Week 16 tied for second among AFC cornerbacks in interceptions.
"I was very, very surprised and disappointed," Fangio said Thursday. "I think Justin Simmons … was a no-brainer. He made it last year and he's playing even better this year. I think Surtain was more than worthy of it, and our two [running] backs."
Simmons and Surtain were both named first alternates — as was 2020 second-team All-Pro Garett Bolles — so it's possible they could end up in Las Vegas for the league's annual all-star game. On Sunday, though, the Broncos will have a chance to prove — on the same field that will later host the Pro Bowl — that they're among the league's best.
"Any time you're winning, you get more prime-time games," Simmons said Thursday. "There's more national coverage. Players and teams and fans get to see your team play. And then with that comes a lot more recognition. … I just think guys don't get the recognition they deserve unfortunately because we haven't been winning football games. And even though we've been in position the last few games to potentially be first in our division or have a one-up in terms of heading into the playoffs, we just haven't found ways to win those games. For me, that's a little bit more important. Once those things start happening, the recognition starts coming."
Simmons said he could use the slight as motivation, and it's entirely possible he could respond with an interception. If the Broncos' best players are able to state their case, Denver could be in position for a statement win.
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